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Jury selection to begin in Fortenberry trial

Nebraska Republican is charged with three felonies related to campaign finance

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., leaves the House GOP caucus meeting in the Capitol Visitor Center on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., leaves the House GOP caucus meeting in the Capitol Visitor Center on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

A jury is set to be picked Wednesday that will decide whether Rep. Jeff Fortenberry lied to federal authorities who were investigating illegal contributions to the Nebraska Republican’s 2016 reelection campaign.

Opening statements are also expected to begin Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, before Judge Stanley Blumenfeld Jr.

Fortenberry faces charges of lying to FBI agents and other federal investigators who interviewed him as part of a wider inquiry into Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire Gilbert Chagoury, a man who illegally funneled foreign money into U.S. political campaigns. It is illegal for foreign nationals, such as Chagoury, to make campaign donations to a candidate for federal office in the U.S.

In total, Fortenberry is charged with three felonies: two counts of making false statements to federal investigators, and one count of scheming to falsify and conceal material facts. Each charge carries a maximum of five years in federal prison.

Chagoury in January 2016 arranged to funnel $30,000 to Fortenberry’s reelection campaign through intermediaries, according to the indictment. Toufic Baaklini, a U.S.-based businessman who helped Chagoury with financial dealings, provided $30,000 in cash supplied to him from Chagoury and gave it to a person identified as “Individual H” at a Los Angeles restaurant. Individual H then was tasked with finding others to contribute Chagoury’s money to Fortenberry’s campaign.

Individual H hosted a fundraiser in 2016 that Fortenberry attended. Individual H and others who Individual H recruited and reimbursed made contributions — using money from Chagoury transferred through Baaklini — totaling $30,200 to Fortenberry’s campaign, according to federal prosecutors.

Individual H began cooperating with law enforcement in September 2016.

Fortenberry contacted Individual H on March 19, 2018, and April 9, 2018, to ask about them hosting another fundraiser in Los Angeles. Individual H called Fortenberry June 4, 2018, to speak of Fortenberry’s requests for another fundraiser and told Fortenberry several times that Baaklini gave them “$30,000 cash” to provide to Fortenberry’s campaign at the 2016 fundraiser, the indictment alleges, referring to this as the “2018 Call.” Fortenberry was also told that money was distributed to others to contribute to his campaign and that the money “‘probably did come from Gilbert Chagoury because he was so grateful for your support [for] the cause,’” prosecutors allege.

Although Fortenberry was aware of the illegal nature of the campaign contributions, he did not file an amended report with the Federal Election Commission about the 2016 fundraiser nor did he try to return the money after the 2018 call, the indictment says. It wasn’t until after the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office interviewed Fortenberry in July 2019 that he “disgorged the contributions” in question, according to prosecutors.

The government plans to call Baaklini and Individual H as witnesses in the trial. Other witnesses are FBI Special Agents Todd Carter and Edward Choe, IRS-CID Special Agent James O’Leary, Jessica Furst Johnson, and Alexandra Kendrick.

Prosecutors plan to introduce excerpts from the April 9, 2018, recorded call between Fortenberry and Individual H and the call between them on June 4, 2018. Carter observed both calls in real-time while the recordings were made, according to the government’s trial memorandum.

Prosecutors allege Fortenberry made false statements during a March 23, 2019, interview run by the FBI and Internal Revenue Service at his home in Lincoln, Neb.;  and at a July 18, 2019, interview conducted by the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, D.C. The government plans to introduce excerpts from both those interviews at trial. Carter and O’Leary observed and participated in the March 23, 2019, interview. Carter and Choe observed and participated in the July 18, 2019, interview, according to the trial memorandum.

John Littrell, one of Fortenberry’s attorneys, argued in November that the case should not have been filed in California because the alleged crimes did not occur in that state.

Fortenberry is running for reelection, but stepped down from his committee roles shortly after he was indicted in October in accordance with the House GOP conference rules. He was the top Republican on the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.

“California prosecutors knew Rep. Jeff Fortenberry had no information about illegal contributions to his campaign and have produced no evidence that he did,” Chad Kolton, a spokesperson for Fortenberry’s campaign, said in a statement. “Rather than enlist his help as the victim of these illegal contributions, which other prosecutors have done in similar investigations of both Republican and Democrat officials, they set Fortenberry up by directing an informant to feed him that information with the intention of trying to prosecute him.”

The most recent instances of members of Congress who have been indicted while in office were Reps. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and Chris Collins, R-N.Y. The former members each pleaded guilty in their respective cases, but were subsequently pardoned by then-President Donald Trump. Collins served some prison time for securities fraud and making false statements to the FBI, but Hunter, who misused over $150,000 in campaign funds, was pardoned before he had to report to prison.

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